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Climate Change and Energy: We Need a Big Boat

January 20, 2017

You may remember a scene in the movie Jaws where the local police chief, having glimpsed the gigantic shark up close from back of the deck, reels back into the cockpit to observe: “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Wringing all the carbon out of the system would be hard enough if world energy demand were flat. But world energy consumption is slated to grow by more than half to 2050. Power demand will increase even more sharply as hundreds of millions of people gain grid access and billions more begin to consume at urban levels. We’ll need a zero carbon energy system much larger than the entire system we have today, which is 85%-powered by fossil fuels.  The consequences of business as usual are plain: we have no chance of meeting our climate targets.In climate change, we have reached the “bigger boat” moment. The December 2015 Paris Agreement committed 195 nations to limit global warming to 2.0 Degrees Celsius, with a further aim of 1.5 Degrees. That implies eliminating carbon emissions from the world’s energy system sometime soon after 2050. Given the long lead time needed for planning energy infrastructure, that’s virtually tomorrow.

We have many options in theory: energy efficiency, renewable energy, advanced nuclear energy, carbon capture, and carbon removal from the atmosphere. But each of these options are, relatively speaking, in their early stages, or face real barriers to scale and cost. Most studies, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the United Nations Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project to the recent Obama Administration Mid-Century Strategy and the Risky Business Project, have for this reason urged a very big boat using “all of the above” strategies.

A brief tour of the horizon suggests why:

  • Energy efficiency has improved significantly since the 1970’s. But substantial further efficiency improvements are already assumed in the growth figures cited above. While some studies have suggested we can keep global energy demand flat while the economy doubles, they assume annual end use efficiency improvement rates of 3-4% per year while actual global end use efficiency improvement has averaged 1%. And recent field tests have suggested energy efficiency performance may not always match optimistic engineering estimates. A large asset, yes. But inflated expectations could lead us to failure.
  • Carbon capture has been commercially demonstrated in the industrial sector (mainly refining and chemicals) for decades, and its application to electric power at commercial scale is now underway. The Petra Nova project in Texas, a coal plant retrofit reducing carbon by 90%, is coming line in 2017 under budget. And, near Houston, a pilot gas power plant that removes most of its carbon at net-zero cost is under construction. Worldwide, 21 CCS projects are either operating or under construction in power or industry. These are promising technologies, but we will need to show they can be cost-effective at commercial scale – and it is never a good idea to rely on one technology family.
  • Renewables such as wind and solar will undoubtedly comprise a large share of the decarbonization strategy, but claims that they can provide all or most global power needs at reasonable cost should be viewed with great caution. A variety of detailed studies, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to Europe’s Zero Emissions Platform, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and others have shown that, even with unlimited and unconstrained transmission, very high renewable electrical systems will continue to require lots of firm, dispatchable zero carbon energy for the weeks and even months when wind and solar are not available at scale, and that battery storage cannot adequately address weekly and seasonal shortages. This parallel system of firm capacity will add substantially to costs. Physical build-out also cannot be blithely assumed. A recent study calling for 100% renewable energy in the US posited just for starters that every coastal state would have 72 offshore windfarms the size of the as-yet-unbuilt Cape Wind project, and every state would host 50 Tehachapi-sized land based wind farms. In short, renewables are a promising option but, as a single strategy, pose substantial risk of falling short of our climate solution goals.
  • Nuclear energy provides, after hydroelectric power, most of the world’s carbon-free electricity. Because of its rapid build-out of nuclear energy in the 1970’s and 80’s, France is the only industrial nation that comes close to the Paris Agreement’s implied power sector emissions targets. But for reasons that are well documented, repeating a French-style scale-up with current water-cooled nuclear technology is unlikely. It is typically more expensive than fossil fuel generation, making it a tough choice for firm power in developing countries; it is slower to build than coal or gas; and the need for pressurized water containment means very large amounts of concrete, steel and long construction times with associated financing costs. A new generation of non-light water designs is now under development that could address these problems. The use of alternative coolants substantially simplifies and reduces the size of these plants, allowing them to be mass-manufactured at lower cost like airplanes rather than laboriously constructed on site. Many have fuel cycles needing much less host country attention, and much smaller, less toxic and weaponizable waste streams. But these options must be commercially proven, and that will not happen by itself.

The challenge is perhaps not easy but it is straightforward. We need aggressive innovation and commercialization across all zero carbon options. In addition to more efficient and less expensive renewables, we need faster development of zero carbon firm capacity options such as advanced nuclear and carbon capture, which have to date received, comparatively speaking, almost no attention.

The big boat is the one that will give us the greatest chance to tame the rising seas.


This blog was originally posted by Pennsylvania Environmental Counsel.

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